by Stewart Cohen
April 20, 2003
This very well may be my best cruise ever. The combination of a beautiful ship, friendly staff, wonderful food, and the terrific friends I made on board blended together to make a delightful holiday. Due to health reasons I was forced to cancel a cruise on the Zuiderdam last February. I was ready for re-booking for late April and after doing some price hunting, I found a terrific deal on the Millennium for the Easter Sunday, sailing. I even lucked out with an airfare for under $150. r/t from NYC/LaGuardia to Ft. Lauderdale. Celebrity isn't always generous to singles but this time they came through. I booked an inside category 9 and landed up with an outside category 8. Thanks to my Captain's Club membership and the use of the Celebrity website I was able to make a lot of pre-cruise arrangements, including passenger registration, shore excursion reservations and reservations for the Olympic Restaurant. I also signed on to the Cruise Critic party and met a lot of my fellow passengers thru the Cruise Critic bulletin board months before I sailed.
I arrived in Ft. Lauderdale the evening before the cruise and stayed overnight at a friend's. We went over to Pt. Everglades about 11:00 a.m. and arrived somewhere around 11:30 a.m. Upon arrival I noticed a lot of passengers who, as it turns out, had just gotten off the ship. This is a bit late for disembarkation and I was told there was a hold up by immigrations due to the number of agents assigned to the ship. Luggage drop-off was very slow, which surprised me. Lucky for me, I was at the head of what turned out to be a very long line. I proceeded to the terminal building and showed my Captain's Club Founding Member's i.d. which entitled me to priority boarding. I was asked to fill out a SARS questionnaire along with a form indicating how I planned to travel after the cruise (in order to determine disembarkation order). I was allowed to proceed to a waiting room and after about 20 minutes, Captain's Club members were allowed to enter the check-in hall.
This went very smoothly and I believe I was the first passenger aboard the ship. Celebrity encourages its passengers to pre-register at their website. Happily, the agent said everything was in order and I received my room key/on-board charge card in no time. I was quickly aboard the ship, offered a glass of champagne or orange juice and proceeded to my cabin. You are asked if you arrive early to go to a public lounge and not directly to your cabin as it is being prepared. I only wanted to drop off my carry-on bag so I proceeded to my cabin only to find it was already made up. Immediately upon arrival I could see what a beautiful ship Millennium is. The color schemes and use of light color woods makes for a bright, happy atmosphere. My outside cabin (2194) was very comfortable. Although situated on the lowest passenger deck, I still found it convenient. It was right around the bend from the aft elevators and I could be up on the pool deck in no time at all. The beds were already together. I only had to request some extra pillows which were already in the cabin, stowed in a cupboard. There were 2 chairs and an oval glass table on one side of the cabin. The other had a vanity table with a 3rd chair as well as a wall unit that housed the television and a mini-bar refrigerator. The fridge was locked and I never bothered to ask my cabin steward to unlock. Angelo was very efficient and friendly. I never needed any special requests but it was nice to see him and know that he was available.
After dropping off my carry-on bag I decided to take a little tour of the ship before lunch. I made my way to the Aquaspa which turned out to be a perfect place to relax, exercise and even dine. The hydrotherapy pool is a huge affair which is for adults only. It is large enough to do laps in and although the need for an indoor pool was not an issue, I found that the air temperature in the spa was delightful and I spent more time there than I originally anticipated. I would add that since there were 500 children on board, the adults only restriction made it more attractive. Proceeding through the Aquaspa area, I checked out the gym and boy, was my timing great. A member of the spa staff came over and invited me to be the demonstration model for the scalp and shoulder massage. I had time for a quick lunch at the Ocean Cafe buffet which was okay, nothing spectacular, except for 2 things. The chocolate Easter Bunnies they set out (it was after all Easter Sunday) and the bleu cheese dressing for the salad. I'm not usually partial to it but out of the choices this is the one that had the most appeal. And boy, was I glad I tried it. You could put this on card board and it would taste great (Michel Roux would be busting if he read this). After lunch I returned to the Spa and for 90 minutes I was treated to one terrific and relaxing massage. Since it was a demonstration I was able to add a little humor as the masseuse explained that the massage is perfect for such things as hangover. I returned to the spa one more time during the cruise, as a customer this time, for one of the port specials. If you check out the daily bulletin delivered to your cabin there will be daily spa specials. The days when the ship is in port (and most people are off the ship) usually offer the best deals. They're still not cheap, but at least you can get a spa experience for under $100.
One unique area of the Aquaspa is called the Persian Garden which offers fragrant showers, Turkish steam rooms and relaxation areas. A 7 day pass was offered for $99. or you could use it on a daily basis. It is a co-ed area. There is, however, separate saunas for men and women which do not require a fee. These areas included showers, lockers and you could even help yourself to a robe to use in the spa area. The gym was spacious and had plenty of treadmills, stationary bikes, rowing machines, Nautilus equipment and a nice size aerobics floor. After my massage I was treated to a hair wash and then it was getting close to safety drill time. The drill was pretty painless. Everyone assembled at lounges for general instructions and then continued to the lifeboat stations for more instructions. Attendance wasn't taken so it went quickly.
After the drill I proceeded to the hosts of the sail away party that was arranged through the Cruise Critic bulletin board. I had made friends months in advance of the cruise through the b.b. and it was nice to meet everyone in person. It was funny to see everyone bringing junk food, cheese and crackers and other stuff you normally wouldn't dream of brining aboard a cruise ship! The group turned out to be very friendly and we seemed to bond very nicely. Although we weren't traveling as a chain gang we did get together several times and plans are already in motion to do a reunion cruise next year. After the sail-away I returned to my cabin to unpack (luggage arrived right before the drill so this was my first opportunity) and relax a bit before dinner.
I decided to check out the casino (Fortunes) before dinner and play little video poker. This had a lousy pay out schedule. I hit a 4 of a kind and got some measly amount like 125 quarters for a maximum bet of 5 quarters. But since I felt I couldn't do much better, I decided to leave while I was ahead, knowing very well that they would see me again. The casino area seemed rather cramped. It had the normal selection of table games, slots, video poker, etc. The size is decent but moving around seemed to be a chore, especially when trying to get by the gaming tables. This, of course, is typical casino logic. Never give anyone a clear path in or out. Sometimes I think a maze is easier to negotiate than a casino. It becomes a bit daunting because one needed to cross the casino to go from the dining room to the Celebrity Theatre, Michael's Club, and the photo gallery.
I also decided to check out Michael's Club, which used to be the cigar bar, but is now a piano lounge. It is the most beautiful lounge on the ship. It looks very much like an English club and similar to the Wheelhouse Bars on the Princess line. The piano is a great idea, but the lounge was not designed for this and the piano had to be set up away from the seats, so forget about sing-a-long. Fortunately, the pianist Rob Ragusa, is both a musician and singer and can handle the load himself. He's a very nice guy and during the course of the week I would get to see him quite a bit. He has an off-beat sense of humor which I appreciated.
So after a couple of tunes, it was time to proceed to the dining room (Metropolitan Restaurant) and meet my tablemates. All turned out to be very, very nice and by the end of the cruise we were hugging each other goodbye. I was assigned a table for 6 on the lower floor of the restaurant, not to far from the center. Our waiter Carlos and assistant waitress, Maja (pronounced Maya) turned out to be 2 very warm and friendly individuals who also were quite professional. Anything we asked for was no problem. I can't begin to tell you how many shrimp cocktails we were brought, but if for some reason there's a run on shrimp soon, you'll know why. The dining room was also THE PLACE for ice cream and sorbet. Although the Ocean Café featured an ice cream bar, you had to go to the dining room for the really good stuff. There were several flavors which changed daily. Among the outstanding flavors were the pistachio and rum raisin ice cream and the mango sorbet. For the most part, I was happy with the cuisine on Millennium. There was certainly enough of a variety and there was no problem asking for something if what you ordered didn't quite please you. I would also use the restaurant for breakfast and lunch on several occasions, and found the service and selection excellent. But the buffet breakfast was wonderful as well. Only on the days when smoked salmon were not available in buffet (and also the day I wanted Eggs Benedict) did I feel a real need to visit the dining room. On the contrary, I much preferred dining outside on the aft deck by the Ocean Bar, whenever possible. One problem with the buffet has to do with the size of the beverage tumblers (way to small) and the positioning of the beverage dispensers (none towards the rear of the buffet). Lunch at the buffet was wonderful at times, other times not so great. But there were other alternatives, such as pizza, the Aquaspa Grill menu which offered fabulous chilled salmon and borscht, to mention just 2 selections, the grill for hot dogs, burgers and pizza. Later in the day, there would be an afternoon tea set up in the buffet which offered mini-croissants that were just amazing. And at 6 pm a sushi bar would open. I'm not a raw fish fan, but the selection also included enough items for a novice to enjoy, such as California rolls and shrimp. The Ocean Bar would also feature a guitarist in the early evening who had soothing sound and was just perfect for an early evening "chill-out". He performed outdoors when the weather permitted. I did not attend the midnight buffet (there's only one which is held in the dining room) but I did sample some of the Light Bites which are hors d'oeuvres served in the casino and other lounges in lieu of a buffet. I did attend the elegant tea which was held on the last sea day in the dining room. The selection of finger sandwiches, pastries, scones (w/whipped cream and jam, thank you very much) was complimented by fine service and lovely classical music.
The major entertainment events were held in the theatre (a three-story affair with excellent sight lines). However, I just didn't think the production shows were anything to write home about, even with some laser effects thrown in. I still find that Princess and Carnival stages the best productions at sea. I was very disappointed that now classical artist was featured during this cruise, as I have always enjoyed the ones featured on other Celebrity cruise ships.
The first full day was a sea day which I enjoy. I got the gym and mile walk out of the way very early so that I could spend the rest of the day relaxing, enjoying the sea and my Discman. Due to the crowds at the pool, I decided to use the Aquaspa pool and whirlpools. Much more peaceful. In the afternoon I was invited to a wine tasting seminar (one of the perks of being a Captain's Club member) which turned out to be a lot of fun. The wines were not offered for sale, although they were available in the dining room at about double the price one would pay at a local liquor store (I know. I checked when I got home).
Ports of call were fine. We arrived at our first one on the 2nd day at 3 pm. This was Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. Previous reviews and bulletin boards had reported that this was a waste of time, so I decided t remain on board the ship where the main pool area had cleared out to a handful of people and what was a very crowded place before we docked became a perfect place to relax and enjoy the empty pool and whirlpools. That evening was open seating in the dining room, so I had booked a reservation at the Olympic Restaurant. Fortunately 6 others of my newly made friends also had the reservations for the same time, so the 7 of others were able to get a table together and had a marvelous time. Everything said about the service and food in the Olympic Restaurant is true. The $25. fee (which includes your gratuity) is well worth the money and it would cost far more for a similar experience in a land-based restaurant. I tried the lobster veloute soup, goat cheese soufflé, rack of lamb en croute, an assortment of cheese and fruit, and the chocolate soufflé. I also sampled the Waldorf pudding which turned out to be the only disappointment.
The next port of call was San Juan. We had to report to immigrations since we were technically re-entering the United States. This was pretty harmless. You had to the report to the theatre an appointed time indicated on a bar-coded notice which you had to hand in and then show your passport or birth certificate with photo i.d. This went very quickly and the disembarkation went smoothly. I did leave the ship this time. I have been to San Juan before but never made it to the San Cristobal fortress which I understood to have tunnels and dungeons on exhibit. I asked where I could find the free trolley since it was a hot day and the fortress is uphill. I waited about 15-20 for the trolley which was packed but managed to get a seat at the next stop. I also found out that I was on the wrong trolley. I didn't care, as long as it went up hill. I wouldn't mind walking across town as long as I didn't have the climb. It turned out the walk wasn't far at all and I enjoyed my visit to the fortress which affords terrific views from its ramparts. From there I strolled to the El Morro fortress (the more famous of the 2). The lawn in front of the fortress happens to be one of my favorite spots in the Caribbean. On a sunny, breezy day you can find children and adults flying kites in the clear, blue sky. After enjoy this for about ½ hour or so I decided to return to the ship for lunch. The walk back through Old San Juan showed just how crowded it gets with the cruise ships in port and I was glad that I had spent my time in less congested areas.
The next port was St. Thomas. Having finally mastered snorkeling, I had booked a snorkel excursion in advance with the cruise ship. This was Captain Nautica's Power Raft Snorkeling. It turned out to be an excellent choice. The Power Raft was waiting for us at the dock (Havensight). We only had about a 5 minute walk to reach it. We were taken to 2 snorkeling locations. The first was situated off the east end of St. Thomas, so we were treated to a speed boat ride, enjoying the views of the coastline. We anchored near some rocks named Cow & Calf due to their resemblance to a mother whale and it's calf. We were instructed to swim out to the large rock and circle it. This was the first time I ever snorkeled in truly deep water (about 30 feet) and it was very much like watching a Jacques Cousteau program. It was interesting to see different fish swimming at different depths. No sharks were present, although we were told there might be but that they were harmless. After everyone re-boarding the boat we continued to the island of St. John and the boat anchored by Honeymoon Beach. Besides the colorful fish, the waters off the beach were a sunken garden of beautiful coral. We also lucked out because while we were in St. John there was a ½ hour storm in St. Thomas which ended before we returned. Since we were at a beach, you could use the beach for sunning or, as I did, swim in the calm waters. Upon returning to the ship I took advantage of the quiet pool area, knowing the next day would be busy as we would be at sea again. I left the ship briefly again to do some shopping, although I made no major purchases. Prices aren't that terrific and sales people didn't seem to anxious to sell. Probably because it was so late in the day and they must have been tired with 4 cruise ships in port. Incidentally, I noticed that I had sailed on all 4 vessels. I'm wondering if it's time to start cutting down.
Our second sea day was a lot of fun. There were some wonderful activities planned for the afternoon. I attended a flowering arranging presentation by Brian, the ship's florist. The florist shop is located at the Conservatory which is on the Sunrise Deck, adjacent to Cosmos (the panoramic lounge which doubles as the disco at night. Hint: This is a quiet place to relax in during the day since most time it's empty. If you need a place to escape to read a book, do some writing, listen to some big band music played over their sound system, or just chill out and watch the ocean, this is the place.). It was fun to visit to look at the arrangements and also because Brian is a terrific guy and a lot of fun. Later on I attended the Elegant Tea in the dining room which was both delicious and entertaining. The live classical music lent a nice touch to the proceedings.
Our final port was Nassau. I booked another snorkel tour. However, just as we were about to proceed to our boat, lightning shot out of the sky and the excursion was cancelled. I decided to do some shopping instead. It seemed like everyone at the port was there to heard people into taxis to go to the Atlantis. I didn't spend much time shopping. Prices were not good. A leather wallet which I purchased 2 years ago for $10. now went for $29. in the same shop! I returned to the ship and went to the dining room for some ice cream and sorbet. I had a quick buffet lunch before the appointed time for the snorkel excursion. Since that was history, I felt that the ice cream would cheer me up. Fortunately depression never seems to last long on a cruise for me. Since this was the final day of the cruise, I needed a scoop of each to help me along.
Our final dinner was both a joyous and sad affair. I did most of my packing before dinner, so I wouldn't feel rushed. I spent a lot of time after dinner in the casino and managed to come out ahead by a nose, although I was still smarting from not being able to get to my favorite slot machine game where I watched one pay out $500. and the other pay out $250. within 30 seconds of each other!
Disembarkation is not fun, no matter how smoothly it goes. After all, it's a rude awakening that your cruise is over. Fortunately, the friendly attitude of the staff continued. I had to report to U.S. Immigrations again, in a similar manner to when we arrived in San Juan. We were also given a slip of paper with an appointed time and lounge for disembarkation. We were told that we could use our cabins until the appointed time. This was very considerate because I hate when they want you out of your cabin very early and to sit around in a public lounge. Since I was being picked up by a friend in Ft. Lauderdale, I didn't need to get off the ship at the early time, so I stayed until 9:45 am which wasn't a problem Finding my luggage was easy since everyone else in my disembarkation group had already claimed theirs.
Millennium gets mostly high marks from me. I think that people really make the cruise and having met some great folks only helped to add to my enjoyment of this wonderful vacation.